ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - The United States and Britain heaped pressure on Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf on Monday, urging him to hold elections on time, as police detained hundreds of lawyers angry at his imposition of emergency rule.
Musharraf cited spiralling militancy and hostile judges to justify Saturday’s action, and slapped reporting curbs on the media in a bid to stop outrage spilling onto the streets amid Pakistan’s biggest crisis since he took power in a 1999 coup.
General Musharraf’s move heightened a sense of uncertainty in nuclear-armed Pakistan and he had to shoot down rumours sweeping the country on Monday that he had been put under house arrest.
“It is a joke of the highest order,” Musharraf told Reuters from the Presidency building in Islamabad where he had just met more than 80 foreign diplomats to explain his decision. He said he was due to play tennis later in the day.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Musharraf, who is usually praised by U.S. officials for his cooperation in fighting al Qaeda and the Taliban, should quit the army, become a civilian leader and hold national elections due in January.
“We believe that the best path for Pakistan is to quickly return to a constitutional path and then to hold elections,” Rice told a news conference during a visit to the West Bank.
“President Musharraf has said that he will take off his uniform. That would be an important step.”
The state-run Associated Press of Pakistan reported that Musharraf had assured foreign envoys he was determined to hold elections meant to mark a transition to civilian-led democracy.
Polls had been expected in January, but the timing is now undecided following imposition of the emergency.
The United States has put future aid to Pakistan under review, having provided $10 billion in the past five years.
“Pakistan is a country of great strategic importance to the United States and a key partner in the war on terror. However, the actions of the past 72 hours have been disturbing,” U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on a visit to China as the Pentagon postponed defence talks with Pakistan due this week.
Security in Pakistan has deteriorated sharply since July, when commandos stormed Islamabad’s Red Mosque to crush an armed Islamist movement. Since then nearly 800 people have been killed in militant-linked violence, half of them by suicide attacks.
Britain also warned Pakistan on future funding.
“We are considering the implications for our development and other assistance programmes in Pakistan,” a spokesman for Prime Minister Gordon Brown told reporters. “We would like to see confirmation that elections will be held on schedule in January.”
As foreign pressure built up on Musharraf, a lawyers’ movement took to the streets in cities across Pakistan.
Police used teargas against stone-throwing lawyers in the eastern city of Lahore, and wielded batons to break up another protest by dozens outside the High Court in Karachi.
Several hundred lawyers, chanting “Go Musharraf Go” and “The dictator is unacceptable”, protested outside the lower courts in Islamabad until police broke them up by force.
“We are not scared of these arrests. We will continue our fight, come what may,” Karachi lawyer Abdul Hafeez, one of hundreds of lawyers arrested on Monday, told Reuters as police bundled him into a car.
Many Pakistanis believe Musharraf’s main motive in declaring emergency rule was to pre-empt a widely expected Supreme Court finding that the general had been ineligible to stand for re-election as president last month.
Several judges were held incommunicado at their homes after refusing to back emergency rule.
Among them was dismissed chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, who became a symbol of resistance to Musharraf’s rule after defying pressure to quit in March.
“Everything that is happening today is illegal, unconstitutional and against the orders of the Supreme Court,” he told daily paper The News.
There have also been mass detentions of political activists.
Qazi Hussein Ahmed, leader of the main Islamist opposition party, Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), was taken into custody on Monday. Authorities had already rounded up 600-700 JI supporters in southern and central provinces overnight.
Benazir Bhutto, leader of the single largest opposition party, has remained in Karachi since hurrying back from Dubai as the emergency was being invoked. She is expected in Islamabad by the weekend to rally support and speak to foreign diplomats.
Pakistan shares fell 4.6 percent, compounding losses incurred last week as talk of impending emergency rule swirled. Analysts said the uncertainty would put bonds under pressure.
“It is a shock from the market’s perspective. Things were going in the right direction and then suddenly you have this complete reversal,” said Dilip Shahani, a credit analyst with HSBC in Hong Kong. “Going back to democracy will take time now.”
Since Pakistan was formed in 1947 by the partition of India that ended British colonial rule, the country has reeled from one crisis to another and spent half its 60 years ruled by generals.